American churchgoers' focus is domestic, not nuclear ARMS CUTS

September 30, 1991|By Isabel Wilkerson | Isabel Wilkerson,New York Times News Service

In Bonn, Moscow and Washington, President Bush's announcement of unilateral cuts in nuclear arms may be seen as momentous and historic.

But at the Pilgrim Baptist Church in Chicago, where people scurried along dark corridors to choir rehearsal and usher board meetings, yesterday was just another Sunday, not the second chapter in the new world order.

Children in navy blue suits, crisp white dresses and gloves passed the collection plate, and deacons announced a bake sale and midweek prayer service. The news that some nuclear weapons would soon be eliminated merited not a word from the guest preacher, the Rev. Yvonne Lee Wilson.

Only when pressed did members even vaguely recall that the president had made some remarks about nuclear weapons.

Mr. Bush's proposal was seen by some of the 500 congregants at this all-black church on Chicago's South Side as just another pronouncement from an often-mistrusted president, not a turning point in history.

And many worried that the president's action was coming too late to rid the world completely of nuclear arms.

"They never should have made them in the first place," said James Edwards, a retired school custodian who is a church usher.

"It's for God to destroy the earth, not man."

Around the nation, as bright fall mornings dawned and people made their way to church services, concerns like homelessness and unemployment seemed greater preoccupations than the proposal, announced Friday night.

Few preachers even mentioned the proposal and what it could mean.

Many of their members were cautious about declaring the arms race over, citing uncertainty about how arms reductions would be verified, and whether other countries not party to the proposal -- Iraq, for example -- might upset the world all over again.

Still, if they allowed themselves to believe it might happen, some had specific proposals for how to spend the money that might be saved by shrinking the U.S. nuclear arsenal.

"There'll be a huge savings that should be spent on housing all over urban America, where it's needed," said Adam Clayton Powell IV, interviewed outside the Abyssinian Baptist Church in New York City's Harlem.

"He [President Bush] could buy food for the homeless," said Victor Chalk, a homeless man and a member of the New Hope Baptist Church in Seattle's Central District, an area beset with gang violence, crime and high unemployment.

"I've got people of all races helping me out. Do you think he would?"

Mr. Chalk's pastor, the Rev. Robert L. Jeffrey, focused on the arms reduction proposal in his sermon.

Addressing himself to Mr. Bush, the minister shouted: "You are neglecting us. You are cutting bombs without cutting poverty. You are selling us on 'star wars' and the B-2 bomber, and you are neglecting the 34 million people on poverty in this country."

Others wanted to be sure that the United States would properly manage its role in the new world order, whatever it turns out to be.

"We have to be ready to move forward with peace," said James A. Forbes Jr., who spoke briefly of improved chances for global peace during his sermon at the Riverside Church in upper Manhattan.

Some thought that arms reductions were the natural result of political changes in the Soviet Union.

Antonio L. Argiz, a Miami resident who went to the 11 a.m. service at Epiphany Church there Sunday, said he thought Mr. Bush should have made the offer earlier.

"He waited far into the scenario," said Mr. Argiz. "Now Russia has no country; there is no power base there."

Mr. Argiz predicted that fewer nuclear weapons would mean diminished global tension, but he added: "Not all the problems of the world have been solved. There is still world hunger and turmoil in the Middle East, where anything can cause that situation to blow up."

Others felt that the proposal itself held risks for U.S. security.

"I don't think we should be too far out front in getting rid of the things God has given us to protect ourselves," said Ivor Mae Barefield, a retired school psychologist who attends Pilgrim Baptist Church in Chicago. "We need some kind of backup."

Beatrice Evans, interviewed outside the Wieuca Road Baptist Church in Atlanta, had some of the same worries.

"I'm still very suspicious about the motives of some countries," she said. "But we have ways of finding out what capabilities they have."

Her pastor, Paul A. Basden, spoke of a changed but hardly trouble-free world.

"We can't be naive now and pretend all of the threats have been eliminated," he said.

"But the U.S.S.R has been dissolved, and I don't think the arms reduction is a hoax. We have good reason to celebrate."

Mr. Edwards of Pilgrim Baptist Church was more skeptical of the Russians and their motives.

"The Russians say all this because they got their hands out," he said.

"They're just talking. It's a whole lot of blah, blah, blah, blah."

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